Today, on the eighth day after the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, according to the ancient sacred custom, is brought to the Temple of the Lord, and, as an eight-day-old infant, is dedicated to the Heavenly Father, enduring the cutting of His flesh for our sake, foreshadowing the shedding of His Blood on the Cross, indicating thereby His lifegiving death on the Cross. He endures suffering for our sake, manifesting His great condescension and love for mankind fallen into sin, purifying and sanctifying it. On this day is accomplished the naming of the Divine Infant by the righteous Joseph with the sacred name of Jesus—an earthly, human name, but announced to the righteous one by the angel descended from Heaven. From today, this name is adopted by the Divine Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, uniting within Himself His human nature like unto ours and His unseen Divine nature.
About this name rejoiced today both Heaven and Earth. Through the invocation of this name with faith, mankind will from now on find great medicine for his immortal soul, and for the purification of the whole of his nature. To this name the apostles will subsequently testify, and every knee will bow in worship: both in Heaven and on Earth, and even in the underworld. There is none other name under Heaven, the apostle Peter says, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The power of this name, according to the exposition of the Holy Fathers, is in the fact that it refers to God Himself Incarnate. Having united His Divine Person with this name, the Lord truly granted this name Divine properties regarding the healing of our nature. He has commanded us to call Him by this name, and our Savior, bearing witness that the Heavenly Father, for the sake of the invocation of this name of the Lord Jesus Christ, will enrich us with every gift, and send down to us every blessing, and fulfill every good supplication of our hearts.
This is why the Mother Church has not overlooked and has not left this holy name without attention, but has elevated it, so to speak, as the banner of salvation, calling all of its children to revere and tremble before this name and to call on it for the salvation of our souls and bodies. The ancient teachers of the life in Christ testify that every Christian, without exception, regardless of title and status, is called to turn throughout the day, and perhaps the night too, to the Savior, sanctifying His holy, long-awaited name in his soul. In the fourteenth century, the hierarch of Thessaloniki St. Gregory Palamas insisted that people living amidst the noisy world are called to ceaselessly turn over this name in their minds and hearts, and with its help to achieve the cleansing and sanctification of their souls. But especially those of the monastic ranks are called to grow in love for the name of Jesus Christ. It’s not incidental that the monastic habit includes a prayer rope—“the spiritual sword”—which upon tonsuring is given to every monastic, with the commandment to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ at all times and in every place. For them, it’s no longer a matter of good pleasure, but a duty and obligation. For, according to the counsel of St. Seraphim of Sarov, every outward obedience of someone who has renounced the world is sanctified by the inward elevation of the mind and heart to God.
In short, brothers and sisters, I would like to remind you of the ascetic teaching of the Orthodox Church on the Jesus Prayer, containing the name of the Lord Jesus Christ within yourself. We see that the holy apostles already knew the power of the name of the Lord. The holy apostle Peter, to the question of his Teacher: But whom say ye that I, the Son of Man, am? answered, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16:15-16). In response to this confession, which laid the foundation for the Jesus Prayer, the Lord promised Peter great mercy, saying that this correct confession and recognition of Him, the Son of God, as God in the flesh, would make him hard as a rock, such that the gates of Hell would not be able to shake his heart, although he was not sinless, but faithful to the Lord, confessing His holy name. If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, says the apostle Paul, and shalt believe in Him in thine heart … thou shalt be saved (Rm. 10:9). We also see in these words a testimony to the Jesus Prayer. The Son of God came into the world that we might have eternal life through faith in Him and through calling upon His name, testifies St. John the Theologian. Thus, all of Scripture convinces us of the necessity, for the sake of our salvation, of loving this name and invoking it with an attentive mind and a sober, pure heart.
Later instructors of piety, especially the holy Russian hierarchs Ignatius of the Caucasus [Brianchaninov—Trans.] Theophan the Recluse explain to us, with respect to our infirmities, all the benefits of the Jesus Prayer, warning against possible mistakes in the sacred practice of it. Thus, St. Theophan the Recluse teaches that to human nature itself belongs the will to invoke the name of Jesus Christ. He who labors in this work of the Jesus Prayer, perhaps, even without the explicit assistance of the Holy Spirit, will succeed considerably in it. It depends on our nature—how much we will cleave to this name in mind and heart—how much we reverently pronounce it. However, “It is only by the Holy Spirit,” the Scriptures say, “that we can call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3). This refers to pure prayer, to prayer that brings the sanctification of God’s grace to our souls. Even if an ascetic of faith does not yet know about the higher levels of prayer, but fights with his passions and forces himself to call upon the name of the Lord, he will not be deprived of the great mercies of God.
Unfounded is the concern and anxiety of those who say, “I’m so burdened with chores and responsibilities and communicating with people that my calling upon the name of the Lord is very imperfect. I’m often dissipated, and I see that my prayer has many shortcomings.” Yes, we are sinful and we are weak, but the Lord does not demand much from us. He sees our efforts to remember Him; He sees how much we are tempted by evil spirits, and therefore He rejoices with Divine joy when He notices one of His children striving to call upon His sweetest name. We are preserved from the multiplication of sins for the sake of this name. For the sake of this name, the Lord does not allow God-hating thoughts to remain long in our sinful souls. For the sake of this name, the Lord keeps us from meeting ill-intentioned, devil-serving people. For the sake of this name, the Lord expels the evilest spirit, abolishing many intrigues, snares, and ambushes unknown to our gaze, which the evil spirit devises, desiring to knock us from the true path. For the sake of the invocation of this name, the souls and bodies of even those of imperfect prayer are sanctified, and even the space around them as well. For the sake of this name, the angels of God willingly assist us in our labors, though remaining invisible to our sight.
However, according to the teaching of Bishop Theophan the Recluse, success in the work of sacred prayer should not be presumed to be in its frequent repetition, its constant sounding in our souls. But many, especially in the beginning of the twentieth century, having forgotten the patristic inheritance devoted to prayer, and not absorbed it as they should, thought that the mere mechanical pronunciation of the name of Jesus Christ was the goal of this work. No, it is not so. St. Theophan upbraids with rather sharp words those who ascribe magical power to the name of Jesus Christ, leaving aside the podvig of sobriety, attentiveness, and monitoring the soul, not noticing just how much the grace of the Lord facilitates this work. Modern ascetics of piety even note that it’s possible to meet people who have attained ceaseless repetition and turning over of the name of God in their consciousness, but, paradoxically, remain submerged in their passions: self-love, pride, antipathy, contentious communication with people, unsociability, and even slander. It seems unbelievable—is it possible, having the Divine fire in your heart, to remain as cold as ice in relation to others? But our fallen nature is now so corrupted, and a proud self-consciousness and vanity have so grown within us that modern man often uses the name of Jesus Christ like some kind of meaningless mantra, caring not a whit for the acquisition of the other moral virtues which are an irrevocable condition for the accomplishment of true, repentant prayer.
This is why, says St. Theophan, the most important thing is what the Jesus Prayer gives us. It can be likened to a certain tree with deep roots. But the tree, of a necessity, must produce branches which are covered with leaves and fruit. The purpose of the sacred invocation of the name of Jesus Christ consists not so much in the ceaselessness of this act as in the vivification of the soul by God’s grace. Only in the case that the grace of God assists the one praying, in simplicity of spirit, in humility of heart, in perfect gentleness, in love for others, in often elevating the mind, and only if the grace of the Lord will support us will we have the genuine success we desire. It consists in the fact that by means of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, of being mindful of God, our consciousness of the unapproachable greatness, holiness, and incomprehensibility of Divinity is gradually fulfilled; that is, in other words, the acquisition of reverence and fear before the Lord God and everything that we call sanctity. A Christian, growing by the grace of God in the fear of the Lord, attentively and truly praying in the name of Jesus Christ, little by little opens for himself the genuine state of his soul to greater and greater degrees. He is persuaded of just how much his heart is not yet free from the passions, and how rarely his heart manages to sigh to the Lord from its depths. He begins to see the numerous fetters and bonds that shackle his soul, abiding in hardened insensibility; he becomes aware of his impurity and unworthiness, and acquires an understanding of himself as truly worse than all other men. He begins to see his lowness, and therefore gives preference to all others in comparison with himself. This is where the proper invocation of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ should lead.
If the soul endures in this podvig, then little by little it acquires the feeling of complete dependence on the Lord, and not in words, but in deeds will it confess the truth of Scripture: “Without Me,” says the Lord, “you can do nothing good” (cf. Jn. 15:5). We can’t even lift a finger without the secret help of our Lord. Growing in these reverential feelings, confessing our weakness, and praising the Lord for His majesty and holiness, we, loving the name of Jesus Christ, will gradually not want to part with it for long. Indeed, nobody can bring his mind to the necessary condition for the performance of the prayer without the help of prayer.
The holy fathers unanimously testify: Only the calling on the name of the Lord with attention is able to cleanse our mind from every image, every dream, and every unnecessary memory, to make it a clean mirror in which is reflected the incomprehensible Unseen God. Only with the help of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ can we introduce the Christian virtues into our hearts, especially those which relate to the secret acts of a Christian, specifically the virtues of sympathy and compassion, humility and meekness, purity, and the virtue of Divine humility. The name of Jesus Christ does not immediately and suddenly unite with human nature. But if the soul endures the necessary struggles, then it will soon find the ability to rejoice in the Lord, as King David bears witness: “In Thy name do we rejoice all the day long.” The name of the Lord, according to the testimony of the most-wise King Solomon, is like a fortress into which the ascetics of faith run and take shelter from invisible enemies. The name of the Lord is a shield by which we conveniently extinguish all the fiery darts of the evil spirit.
To put it simply, in the invocation of the name of the Lord lies the whole essence of the spiritual life, if only we understand that from this flower must necessarily come a sweet fragrance—of love, humility, meekness, gentleness, and purity. And undoubtedly, no anxieties, no burden from obediences, or even living in the world in the midst of a noisy city with its temptations and seducements can hinder a Christian from conversing with the one God, and little by little, according to the words of St. Seraphim, ascending from one degree to another, to achieve perfect purification of soul. The Lord will help us in this if we will always crucify our pride, vanity, self-will, and disobedience, and always see ourselves in our infirmities, upbraiding ourselves, and justifying others, remembering that only faith which worketh through love (Gal. 5:6) elevates a Christian to the heights of moral perfection. Amen.